As a Chinese American who grew up eating Chinese food almost every night for dinner, I feel pretty weird telling people I can't eat most Chinese food anymore.
There's one very simple reason for this: soy sauce.
I've been gluten-free now for six years, and soy sauce, which in the United States typically contains wheat, is in 99 percent of the Chinese food I come across. What makes it harder is that when I do try to eat at Chinese restaurants, as soon as I start saying no soy sauce, the waiters look at me like I'm from a different planet.
So I generally avoid Chinese restaurants. Japanese and Korean restaurants are also tough. But if you do choose to give these restaurants a try, below are some tips to help you stay safe.
If you're jonesing for East Asian food, Thai and Vietnamese food are two other options that could be more gluten-free friendly, although it's still always safest to ask questions when you order. Here are some tips, by cuisine:
Almost all sauces and marinades in Chinese food have a soy sauce base, or if not soy sauce then another sauce that itself is based on soy sauce, for example, fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and oyster sauce. A good rule of thumb is that anything slightly brown in color has probably been touched by soy sauce.
Depending on the restaurant, you may find some sauces that are not brown at all and don't contain any soy sauce. Cornstarch, which is gluten-free, is often used as the thickener rather than flour.
However, if the dish is deep-fried, it could also be breaded, so be sure to ask whether it is breaded or just directly fried in oil.
If you love dumplings or dim sum, I'm going to have to disappoint you here, too. Most dumplings are made with a wheat-based skin. Even if the skins are made with rice-paper, often there is wheat mixed in. I suggest avoiding dumplings altogether.
You could try asking the waitstaff to check the ingredients on the package of the dumpling skins, but unless you know the restaurant well, chances are they won't have the time or willingness to go to that extent of investigation for you. Chinese restaurants are not known for their impeccable service.
Your safest bet if you still decide to eat at a Chinese restaurant would be to ask for steamed vegetables and maybe fish, but make sure to say no sauce. Bring your own sauce — gluten-free tamari and Sriracha is a delicious combination that's gluten-free!
In my experience, Korean food is just as difficult as Chinese food on a gluten-free diet. Many dishes use soy sauce as their base, and most meats are marinated in soy sauce.
One exception is kimchee and kimchi-based dishes. I've found that most kimchee does not contain soy sauce, but it's always safer to ask. Plus, kimchee has the added benefit of lots of healthy bacteria.
I love sushi, and I'm lucky enough that in Los Angeles, most sushi restaurants have gluten-free tamari on hand now.
Sushi is relatively easy to stay gluten-free with, since the soy sauce usually isn't hidden in the dish; it's either drizzled on top in the form of a sauce (e.g., ponzu or a sweet brown sauce used on some rolls) or you dip it yourself.
One exception is tamago (a sweet egg-based sushi); the preparation of this egg is actually quite complex and involves wheat flour.
Before you go for sushi, call ahead and make sure they have gluten-free tamari. If they don't, bring your own and make sure they know not to add any extra sauce to your sushi.
Outside of sushi, the same general rule applies: If it's got a brown sauce or marinade, stay away from it.
Also beware of soba noodles. Although their primary ingredient is buckwheat, many manufacturers also mix in wheat flour. Tempura and breaded foods also contain either wheat flour or panko (Japanese breadcrumbs).
Like with lots of other East Asian cuisines, the starch in Vietnamese food is rice-based. However, even pho, the popular Vietnamese soup noodle dish made with rice noodles, often contains soy sauce in the broth.
But don't despair, other dishes that don't include a broth but still use the rice noodles or rice (e.g., vermicelli bowls, salads, rice bowls) could be safe, just be sure to ask about the sauce!
I've found that Thai food contains the most gluten-free options. Of course, there are lots of stir-fried dishes that use a soy sauce base as well, but some classic Thai dishes do not use soy sauce.
Pad Thai, for example, is a noodle dish made with rice noodles that typically uses a sweeter sauce with no soy sauce. There are also popular soups (e.g., tom yum) and meat dishes (e.g., BBQ chicken) that don't use soy sauce, although be sure to ask about fish sauce. Also beware of peanut sauce, as there is often soy sauce mixed in.
These tips touch on East Asian dishes that are popular in restaurants in the United States and are generalizations. If you go to a more authentic, regional, or upscale restaurant, you will likely find lots of other dishes, and some of these could be gluten-free.
At many of these Asian restaurants, especially the more authentic ones, language can also be an issue. My advice is to mention gluten-free but then to ask about specific ingredients like soy sauce, fish sauce, wheat flour, breadcrumbs, panko, etc.
If you have celiac or extremely sensitive, also watch out for cross-contamination at the table. Many of these cuisines are served family-style, so be sure that each dish has its own serving spoon and that your companions don't double-dip utensils.
Eating out at East Asian restaurants on a gluten-free diet is challenging — believe me, I've tried for many years to make it work. But it is doable.
Do your prep work and call ahead, and if all else fails, ask for plain steamed vegetables and bring your own sauce.
You can also learn to cook your favorite Asian dishes at home using gluten-free tamari. There are lots of options; you just have to do a little prep to make them work!